May 27, 2008

On the Horizon: An adaptation of an adaptation

Twice in 2008 we've seen films about the childlike, playful, imaginative side of filmmaking. Be Kind Rewind and Son of Rambow moderately succeeded in reminding us of the dreamworlds you can bring to life with a simple camcorder, but when it comes to truly capturing the joy of film, neither comes close to Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, made 20 years ago on a $5,000 "budget."

In 1981, Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb were preteen best friends living near Gulfport, Mississippi, so fascinated with Steven Spielberg's new film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, that they decided to make their own version. Every character, every shot, start to finish. The sets would be in their basements and backyards. Cute, right?

Over the next seven years, the boys amazingly finished the film and proudly showed it to the community at the PepsiCo Auditorium in Gulfport (hmm, reminiscent of those 2008 films I mentioned...). That was supposed to be the end of the story - until Hostel director Eli Roth resurrected their film almost 15 years later for a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, TX, which started the ball rolling that eventually landed the now-adult trio an audience with the man himself - Steven Spielberg. Buzz out of Austin and a 2004 Vanity Fair article ("Raiders of the Lost Backyard") began a flood of press that soon reached producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men), who acquired the life rights of Chris, Eric, and Jayson for the purpose of creating the currently untitled feature length film about their story, to be written by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World). Until that happens, Chris and Eric continue to attend screenings of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation while also working on their next project, What The River Takes.

I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation that was introduced by Eric Zala, who was the "official" director but also played Belloq. The story of the making of the film sounds fantastic; the DVD commentary for this might eventually end up being the best commentary ever, provided the trio can remember everything that happened over two decades ago. In any case, what really sets their story apart from other amateurs is the simple fact that their film is actually really good.

Seriously, just take a look at this shot-by-shot comparison. Still not impressed? Think about the fact that DVD and even VHS were unavailable for the first few years of their production. So yes, they had to recreate it from memory - memory and the 602 storyboards hand drawn by Eric Zala (check out the rest of the incredible production information here).
Sure the video and audio aren't great, and yes, the continuity of haircuts and pubescent voices isn't perfect, but come on - it took them seven years, and the end result is still an amusing but astonishingly accurate recreation of the original Raiders, complete with all the same stunts, silly lines, and stirring musical score by John Williams. The only part missing from their 100 minute film is the well known Nazi vs. plane propeller scene from Raiders, but it's not because it was too difficult or dangerous (you can laugh away that thought after seeing the first 10 minutes of the film). Rather, as Eric Zala told the audience afterwards, it was because they couldn't get their hands on an expendable airplane, and using a model would have looked too "fake." Seriously, these guys didn't mess around - even when they were messing around.

I can't really do justice to the original Vanity Fair article, so I'll stop here and point you back up to that. If you're a fan of the Indiana Jones trilogy or even just a former backyard filmmaker yourself, do yourself a favor and find your way to the next screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Eric Zala appeared confident that the Hollywood version of their story will happen soon, so keep an eye out. With the now confirmed box office success of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the timing might just be perfect for the adaptation of The Adaptation.


  1. It is, Nick.

    It's just an incredible story. The VF article is really a great piece, though it really should to be paired with a viewing of the film. You just can't believe how these guys pulled some of those scenes off. Talk about "champagne on a beer budget", or whatever the phrase is. It's crazy.

  2. What a great story. And I love your comparison to SoR and BKR, both movies that tried to capture the spirit that this movie LIVES.

    I'm sorry it played here without me even knowing about it.

  3. It's weird, Craig, that this didn't get more buzz with both of those movies recently out and Indy mania at a fever pitch. I expect that you'll get another shot at it since they've been screening it around for a few years, but if they're really working on a new project then maybe not. Apparently the Graumann's show sold out, so let's just pretend you couldn't have gone anyway...

    Worst case scenario - their adaptation is included as a special feature on the DVD of the feature length.

  4. In the beginning of the movie, I thought "What did i get myself into?" But after the first few scenes, I started enjoying the movie. It's quite comical seeing the similarities between the real movie and this one. I actually really enjoyed it! AThank you.

  5. I'd love to see this. And RAMBOW -- just to show Craig that not all Rambo fans are bloodthirtsy jingoists;

  6. You're welcome, "anonymous." :-P Glad you liked it. I didn't really expect the video quality to be that bad, but as soon as Indy was inside the cave I knew it was going to be good.

    Haha, Christian. I think you really will find something to appreciate about the bloodless Son of Rambow.

  7. Any clue how to actually get a screening in your hometown? I've tried the website to no avail. I really want to get this screened here in Tulsa.

  8. Sorry, Evan. I'm not sure how the screenings are arranged, but the guys seems pretty responsive. Here's a note from Eric:

    "Hi Daniel,

    Thanks so very much for the email, and for the awesome blog! It’s a thrill for Chris and I to hear that our little film has had such an effect. So unexpected for this little film we shot in my mom’s basement… but that’s the wonderous surreality of life.

    Really appreciate your kind words, well wishes and helping to spread the word. Good to meet you!


    If you guys at MZ could gather a critical mass of people in Tulsa, I doubt they'd be able to say no. Eric was totally not a high-maintenance guy, which fits pretty well with the story, I suppose. He just loves the magic of film.

    I didn't want to recommend this, but it appears the first 10 minutes are on YouTube. I just don't think it would be as fun to watch without the filmmakers and a good theater crowd.

  9. Ok, I found their email and shot them a message. I think my initial request went to the admins, and I haven't heard back from them yet.

  10. Holy cow, those guys are on top of things. Sent an email back within 20 minutes, and he's even in a meeting at the moment!

  11. Wow, Evan! Good for you. Hopefully something works out.


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